Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My problem with video art

Transmission has been patchy over the past ten days or so, while I have battled against such major handicaps to blogging as the due date of a large essay and the children and I falling sick one after the other in an endless domino loop of coughing and nose-blowing. (Possibly not unrelated.) The result has been a kind of intellectual rain-fade; a radical attention-span deficit not at all conducive to sustained blogging: indeed, though somewhat luxurious, watching the back-to-back episodes of Coronation Street saved up during my period of enforced TV abstinence has proved quite intellectually demanding. Between bouts of surreptitious sniffing at the sad demise of Vera (even the big guy was suspiciously red-eyed), I've been hard-placed in recent days to string more than one coherent sentence together, and even that's been pushing it at times, much like the baby, who is at the stage of pointing wildly at things she would like to be handed and shouting 'That! That! That!' with an ever-more indignant tone in her voice. Twitter, a form of micro-blogging which allows you to write in only a 140 character maximum, has proved the perfect distraction.

I'm predicting the usual massive take-up by New Zealanders of this new form of communication technology: perhaps our geographical position at the end of the world makes us increasingly conscious of keeping in touch. Many New Zealand art bloggers are already tweeting away, as are several public New Zealand art galleries and museums (including Christchurch Art Gallery, who've announced they're about to start twittering on 6 April), and a couple of prominent local artists. I'm enjoying it. Twitter's like a collective stream of consciousness to which you can add and dip into when you have time and inclination. Far from being a way of holding the world at arm's length, it's a new way to become intimately involved with it.

Some of the ideas tweeted by others, and the links posted, have been useful for my studies (@Pareidoliac is a particularly effective and generous connector of ideas, people, and writings). Others have made me laugh, a lot: I suspect it will be hard this week to trump @BadTom's comment that with an outing in the weekend he has managed to bring the cost-per-wear ratio of his top hat down to double figures. Other tweets involve quite abstract and gnomic utterances, scraps from a plotless narrative thrown out and picked up like a discarded note found on the footpath.

There's a vaguely voyeuristic element to the window Twitter provides into people's private lives, or at least, the private selves they perform in the public space of the internet. (Twistori , a spin-off site which reveals in real time what people are loving and hating, feeling and believing, thinking and wishing, is particularly interesting. It's like a model of human consciousness, developing in real time. 'I wish I could make up an ingenious conspiracy.' 'I wish it would stop snowing.' 'I wish it was summer and I could lay in the sun and drink whisky and listen to Metallica in Helsinki'.) Luckily for my present purposes Twitter requires a very short attention span indeed, yet presents a worthy enough challenge to compose vaguely interesting utterances in under 140 characters.

A friend who now manages young people's programmes at the National Portrait Gallery in London once said to me that she always structured her lessons around a commercial TV hour. She would break the learning into roughly ten minute chunks followed by a brief change of pace, as she believed that adolescents were unable to sustain concentration for any longer than the TV programming time between advertising segments. In New Zealand, at fifteen minutes in any hour the advertising load is one of the highest in the western world, and I've sometimes wondered if this is the explanation for my own rather poor concentration span; which is never more evident than when it comes to video art.

When I read descriptions of video installations like this, even though the artist is Gary Hill and therefore the work is likely to be quite interesting, I quake in my boots: 'So seven works spread out on different week days are quite difficult to get to. You have to be keen – especially if you don’t work in town – but so you should, they are worth it.' Gulp. Even if I lived in Auckland, I know I would be hard-pressed.

It's not just that it's on a screen, and therefore that I'm conditioned to regard video works as entertainment, which I initially suspected might be the exceptionally shallow root of my longterm problem with video art. No, it's that video art seems to demand such a lot from its audience. Time, stamina, multiple visits: I suspect it's only something that someone without small children in tow could possibly countenance. I have a readymade excuse now, of course, but I'll admit to never having been too keen. If a video work is rubbish, or dull, or generally not worthy of your attention, you have to have watched the whole jolly thing to know that. A dull painting or a sculpture, however, you can move on from immediately.

Nam June Paik, TV Garden, 1974. via Artnet

There are many, many video works I think are terrific: for example, anything I've ever seen by Bruce Nauman. Stella Brennan's exploration of the Mt Erebus tragedy. Sean Gladwell's skateboarding Storm Sequence. And I've had some really great video art experiences: hovering about in the darkened flickering light of Nam June Paik's TV Garden upstairs at City Gallery. Being revolted by Paul McCarthy downstairs. Up against Thomas Demand in Sydney. The Daniel Crooks installation at the Christchurch Art Gallery last year was one of the most extraordinarily immersive art experiences I've ever had. Among New Zealand artists, video works by et al, Lisa Reihana, Sean Kerr and Steve Carr never seem to feel demanding of my time as a viewer: instead, I've been delighted to give it, and have always felt hugely rewarded for doing so.

I came across these remarks on video art by Christian Boltanski the other day. I suspect that by his definition I most enjoy the video works that are like paintings, that describe space rather than take up time.
The big difference between painter and artist is that some art is to do with space and other art is to do with time. Music, literature or theatre, these things do something with time. Painting does something with space. When we see a movie, there is a beginning and an end, most of the time. When you see a painting, you can look at it for ten minutes or six hours, and you can move around. The big "cut", in terms of media, I think, is time or space. There are some artist videos, like Bruce Nauman's, which are more like painting, really, because they are a space product, like sculpture. But there are also artist videos that are more like cinema, because they have a beginning, an end, and we sit down to watch them.
My problem with video art is that I always feel a bit anxious in approaching it. I'm apprehensive that it won't repay the time I spend with it, that somehow I will go away feeling that I have wasted my time on something I don't much care for. Which is a pretty ridiculous anxiety, when I stop to think about it, given the amount of time in my life I've spent watching TV. Or reading submarine novels. Or writing nonsense on Twitter. (Interestingly, John Hurrell, the critic who recommends Gary Hill's show so warmly, doesn't have a TV. I think this may be significant.)

Monday, March 23, 2009

Famous for something or other

Gerard Malanga, Ingrid Superstar and Andy Warhol (1966). Photo: Nat Finkelstein. via Warholstars

'In the future,' said Andy Warhol -- though later on he wished he hadn't, as it was boring always being asked about it -- 'Everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.'

Warhol made that prediction back in 1968, when private lives were still relatively private, and when most people -- apart from those chosen few lifted to celebrity status by virtue of extraordinary talent, or great good looks, or perhaps the misfortune to be caught up in a major criminal trial -- lived out their lives in relative obscurity, socialising only with a discrete group of family and friends. Today, of course, thanks to the ubiquity of digital imaging technologies and the unstoppable rise and rise of online social networks like Twitter and Facebook, people's lives are lived far more publicly, with friendships and intimate relationships often conducted in full public view. There's a seemingly insatiable public appetite not only for news about celebrities but the desire to live as one, in the public eye. I'm not sure exactly what the generational uptake is for digital social networking, but it seems predominantly a younger person's game; I suspect a birthdate of 1968 might roughly signal the upper age limit of the socially-networked contemporary individual.

Andy Warhol was fascinated by the media's ability to create something out of nothing, and was adept at using it to explore his ideas of celebrity. His entourage of hangers-on, whom he named the Superstars, became famous for not actually doing very much at all except hang around at the Factory and go to nightclubs with Warhol and be fabulous on cue for his camera. After a short time in the spotlight, most faded away to obscurity, while others simply disappeared or died. When you think about it, Andy Warhol's Superstars might well be considered the first of the reality media stars: there's a direct line of descent between them and the unfortunate British reality TV celeb Jade Goody, who passed away from cervical cancer in the weekend aged 27, having spent much of the past few years, including her final difficult weeks, in the public eye.

Jade Goody, via The Himalayan Times

I got quite grumpy this morning listening to Mike Hosking grumbling on about how Jade Goody was unaccountably famous for doing nothing at all, as if she were merely a tiresome symptom of some kind of contemporary social psychopathology; a vulgar dimwit hardly worthy of an intelligent person's attention. I've been in front of the cameras a few times myself, and it's hard work; it's not an easy thing to do at all, to turn it on on demand. You could film a thousand people picked at random off the street and none would have been as entertaining or as watchable as former dental nurse Jade Goody. (Certainly not me.) Irrepressible, irreverent, warm-hearted, unpredictable: a hugely enjoyable personality. Her famous gaffes ('Where's East Anglia? Abroad?' and 'Who's Rio de Janeiro?') were all part of the schtick: it's unremarkable to be ignorant, but it is remarkable that a public staging of a private self can achieve and sustain such a gigantic audience. (A far larger one, of course, than Hosking receives on the radio. Where his job is similarly to open his trap and bang on about nothing.)

In celebrity news closer to home, the twelve bronze heads ('Christchurch Heroes') have finally been installed in the Christchurch Arts Centre to considerable fanfare in the newspaper. (Images here and here.) While it's a well-intentioned gesture to mark the achievement of some outstanding individuals and to value local history, I have nothing to say about these works as public art (that's not the point of them, I wouldn't have thought), apart from noting that there are already a lot of public memorials in Christchurch: oddly most of the individuals depicted here are still very much in the land of the living.

Here's Canterbury Heritage's take on the selection:
'Said to be of worthies who are among those whose achievements in the second half of the twentieth century are remembered with pride and pleasure by the people of Christchurch, we note with interest that more than half of those enshrined gained this alleged distinction through the world of commerce.'
On the other hand, Over The Net are surprised that the two arts figures among the group, painter Bill Sutton and children's author Margaret Mahy, have been named as local heroes at all, suggesting that the selection posits that 'heroism is simply an extension of celebrity'. Which is an interesting point, I think. (Though at the same time I do believe Sutton is a bit of an unsung hero of New Zealand modernist art. He should be considered a national figure of similar status to Toss Woollaston, rather than just a regionalist of note. Not that displaying his bronze head on a plinth in Christchurch will do much about that problem.)

I was interested to read somewhere that the twelve bronze busts, commissioned by a private trust, have only been granted a ten year 'lease' on their spot near the Court Theatre. After that point, their permanence and continued relevance to the site will be reassessed. One man's decade is another's 15 minutes, perhaps.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sick call

Not much going on today for me: have caught the small guy's foul bug and have been malingering around the house feeling sorry for myself and pretending to do some work while updating my Twitter stream.

However, I thought this was quite funny. In a too-much-time-on-hands kind of way that I don't seem to experience myself much anymore. (Via the excellent Hrag Vartanian.)

And Reuben Paterson's comments on Isaac Julien's New Zealand project were a bit of an eye-opener. Crikey.

And I'm delighted to hear that Deidre Brown's big book on Maori architecture to be published by Penguin is due out soon. Excellent, authoritative, thorough, controversial in parts, much needed, etc. She really is one of our important scholars.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tail pipe

A couple more photos of Thomas Hirschhorn's Poor-racer, the One Day Sculpture in Sumner which I blogged about yesterday.

The first shows the twin exhausts customised with tin foil.

We presumed the foil-covered box in the boot in the second image was the obligatory ginormous subwoofer for the car stereo, but were corrected by curator Danae Mossman. It's actually the petrol tank: seems when cars are lowered, the petrol tank needs to be raised and welded into the boot cavity so it doesn't scrape along the ground and burst into flames. "Oh, OK," we said, and nodded. It was one of those strange art moments, standing in the cold wind of the Esplanade looking at a tin foil box and being instructed by an art history MA in the finer points of street racer customisation.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Gone in 24 hours

Drove en famille out to Sumner yesterday to take in Thomas Hirschhorn's Poor-racer, an event in the One Day Sculpture series perfectly conceived for Christchurch, the unabashed boy-racer capital of New Zealand. The sound of the suburbs is no longer lawn-mowers and leaf-blowers, as the recent promotion of the Ellerslie Flower Show would have you believe, but instead the "Psssht! Pssht! Varoommmm" of a customised Mazda Familia accelerating at speed. (Rather appropriate, I felt, that they turned Hagley Park into an enormous grassy carpark for the occasion of the garden show.) The small guy had complained about coming to see the sculpture, suggesting that a car covered in cardboard would be boring. "What is it? A car covered in cardboard? Did he use blue-tack or sellotape to stick it? It's a car, and it's cardboard. Not interesting."

But when we saw it, it was. Actually, the small guy's eyes lit up. It was parked nonchalantly about halfway along the Esplanade towards Scarborough Hill: a lowered modified car pimped with gigantic cardboard sideskirts, spoiler and insanely large hood scoop (or perhaps intercooler? I'm no expert, I just live here), and tin foil mags plus internal stabilising bars made out of what looked like toilet roll inners sellotaped together. The bonnet was raised to show engine parts 'chromed' with more tin foil. It looked driveable, but only just. Ridiculous and entirely wonderful, its obvious painstaking labour out of all proportion with the results, Hirschhorn's low rider was like a school project on steroids, its materials unfit for its ambitious conception. I couldn't decide if it was a monument to heroic failure, or just plain heroic. It reminded me a lot of Marie Shannon's photographs of her own 'unworthy objects', like her model house or the 'museum of cat fur'.

A coldish easterly had blown up along the beach, so the usual hordes of girls in bikini tops and board shorts and guys in wet suits a size too small queueing for the sole public dunny were conspicuous by their absence. We parked a couple of spaces down from the work and got out. A car slowed down as it passed by on the Esplanade, pale faces pressed to the windows.

There were a few people milling around the pimped cardboard car with a vague sense of purpose as we approached. An unlikely and diverse group. Half a dozen puzzled elderly punters who'd cut their Sunday constitutional short. A plump young guy with a curly mullet and nylon soccer shorts. The cultural attache from the Swiss Embassy; curator Danae Mossman; a couple of bleary-eyed young artists who'd assisted with gaffer tape and tin foil through the night, sitting on a tartan picnic blanket; the artist, tall and thin and dressed in black, chatting with all-comers.

You can always feel a tension at that kind of moment, looking at a new public work of art. The people already there have already bonded in a purposeful kind of way; as spectators or fabricators, they have formed themselves into a group united by mutual interest in the physical proximity of a peculiar object; the person who made it is standing there too; you arrive in their midst as a stranger; what will you bring to the mix? To get my bearings I walked round the car, and had a look at the detail -- the cardboard steering wheel, the fruit tray like a little mat on the passenger's side floor, the flames emblazoned in magic marker -- and took a few photos, and thought about it for a bit, and then was introduced to the artist. "Great work," I said. "Thanks for coming out." "Thank you," he said. I opened my mouth to speak, trusting that something vaguely intelligent and penetrating would come out. Suddenly I was aware of a strange sensation behind me. It was the small guy, who'd momentarily escaped from his father and had crept up to ping the elastic of my underpants. "Snap! Snap!" it went.

Hard to sustain the serious art thing after that, and probably just as well.

Here's the detail.

Passenger footwell. Windows taped for a crash.

Intercooler, mags, and fork flame pimping.

Customised upholstery and racing steering wheel.

Skirts and sponsors branding.

Here what the artist has to say. Thomas Hirschhorn:
"I am interested in the Form which is created by customising or tuning a car. The fact of personalising one’s own ordinary car in order to give it a unique individual touch is the revolutionary gesture of everybody, without exclusion. Customising or tuning is an act of resistance to the non-written laws of all kinds of exclusion. In the desperate and useless act of car-tuning I see a form of resistance throughout form. And as an artist - what can interest me more than Form?"

(Perhaps I should consider the underpants tweak as the small guy's own personal act of resistance to looking at art in the weekends.)

Monday, March 9, 2009

Off the air

I spent a lot of time as a child looking at the picture above: it's 'Test Pattern F', which the BBC used as its off the air placeholder -- the TV equivalent of a .404 file not found message -- from the late 1960s. Originally of course we saw it in black and white, and it took me years to understand that it was a still photograph: as a child I thought the girl in the image was keeping very still indeed, and I would scrutinise it for long periods to see if I could spot her moving, scratching her nose or something while I blinked. When we finally got a colour TV in the mid-1970s, somehow I was astounded to see that it was actually a colour image.

The original photograph was taken in 1967 by BBC engineer George Hersee of his daughter Carole, who brought along her clown doll Bubbles (whom I always found a bit creepy: perhaps marking the start of my clown phobia) to the studio for the photoshoot. Carole Hersee was paid 100 pounds without royalties for the use of her image, which appeared on TV for an estimated total of 70,000 hours, equivalent to nearly eight years screen time. She got a lot of fan mail as a child, and was once asked to open a dog show. (The BBC recently brought Test Card F back on its HD channels, to help viewers tune their screens: the 'X' of the noughts and crosses game board is in the exact centre of the image.)

Meanwhile, unless something enormous breaks in the New Zealand art world I'm off the air myself this week, while I climb a mountain of work. Stay tuned, and see you back here on the 16th March when normal transmission will resume.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cold case: The art detective

In May 2008 the Labour-led New Zealand Government introduced the Copyright (Artists’ Resale Right) Amendment Bill, establishing a mandatory royalty payment for visual artists when their work is resold on the secondary market. It seems to have all gone pretty quiet; I'm not sure who's running the scheme, how's it's going or whether in fact it's even started yet; maybe it's in the process of being canned by the new National-led government, whose arts spokesman wasn't at all keen on it. I was interested to read, however, about the similar visual art resale scheme operated by the Californian state government, whose administrator spends hours trying to track down missing artists in order to send them small cheques, often for amounts under $100.

'The paperwork needed to collect royalties mushrooms from a one-page form to a project that might require wills, drivers' licenses and, sometimes, lists of heirs. It's just not worth it, in some cases. For Mr. [Jerry] Garcia, the payoff for his estate would be $812.50; in Mr. [Robert] De Niro's [Snr] case, $137.50. When one living artist was told he was owed $90, he told Ms. Milich, "Call me when you've got some more money."'
However, painter Rick Stich, who recently received a royalty cheque for $80 after an exhaustive search, commented to the Wall Street Journal that he was glad to have it. "If you found $80 on the ground, would you pick it up?" he asked. "I would."


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Keats and Yeats are on your side

Gerald Kelly, T.S. Eliot, 1962, oil, National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

When I read John Hurrell's recent critique of youngish Auckland art group Raised by Wolves as being "too earnest and ‘goody-two-shoes’", and most of all lacking irony in their artistic practice (something to which I admit I am also very partial, though of course I'm nowhere near as old as John), these remarks by T.S. Eliot from 'The Uses of Poetry and the Uses of Criticism' came to mind.

"No generation is interested in art in quite the same way as any other; each generation, like each individual, brings to the contemplation of art its own categories of appreciation, makes its own demands upon art, and has its own uses for art ... Both artist and audience are limited. There is for each time, for each artist, a kind of alloy required to make the metal workable into art; and each generation prefers its own alloy to any other."
Which is not to suggest that criticism can only be made by members of the same generation: more that each generation has a concord of mutual understanding which is difficult for others to enter. I suspect in fact there's all sorts of irony going on here, just of a different variety. Or maybe I'm misreading it entirely?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Left cheek, please

"Personally, which in my case and many others is I think almost to say professionally, I have been disturbed by the huge increase in treating arse-kissing as an acceptable way of life that has seemed to me to be characteristic of the art world in recent years."

Artist and essayist Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe, responding to Frieze's online survey about the rise of professionalism in the art world.

A short guide to flatting in 1968

Another installment from the Playdate archives.

In 1968 you could get a one-bedder "personalized pad" in Herne Bay for under $10 a week, or an ultra-modern furnished three bedroom flat in Mount Eden, complete with low coffee tables, divan beds, shiny copper light shades and "ceilings of sprayed-on asbestos" -- evidently a desirable feature forty years ago -- for only $26.

Like many of the articles in Playdate, this guide to four typical Auckland flats is an amazing time-capsule; but what caught my attention here is this fabulous photograph of the lounge in a converted Herne Bay villa with its Toss Woollaston painting hanging over the fireplace, and a brushy gestural abstract work next to the "gas caliphont" over the bath. (Ahem. Art gallery registrars all over the country would be having a fit.)

The article reads:
"The whiteness of the room itself accentuates objects. Colours seem brighter, form clearer. The few paintings (McCahon, Angus, Woollaston etc.) read as clearly as type on a page. There are books everywhere--on a desk, on a writing bureau, on bookshelves, mantlepiece and floor. Bessie Smith is singing."
While the various advantages of the flat included briar roses and nasturtiums in the garden and a "first-rate fireplace", the downside was that it was a bit dark and damp: "The light isn't good enough for painting."

Anyone recognise the tenant? (The clue may well be hanging in the bathroom.)

On another matter, Season 5 of Dancing with the Stars has started. (I promised myself that this time I wouldn't watch it, but regrettably as ever found myself glued to every cheesy spangled moment.) This one's harder than most to pick, but I suspect reality-TV veteran (oh, and ex-All Black) Josh Kronfeld will be in the final hunt. Wonder how many series to go before they have a visual artist among the line-up of celebs, and gulp -- who would it be?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

When animals attack

Still from 'A.F.F.C.O.', ©Brilliant Films/Skeptics 1988, via Spleen

When curator Francesco Bonami invited animal rights groups to view the controversial video works of French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed (in which animals are shown fighting for sport or being bludgeoned to death by Mexican butchers) prior to the exhibition's opening at the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin last month, it resulted in vigorous protests and the involvement of local legal authorities.
"An act of openness was seen as a sign of weakness, and when you show fear, it’s just like in the animal world, they attack you,” Mr. Bonami said. “That’s what happened with the animal-rights groups. We showed a little fear, and they attacked us.”
So far only warning signs have been erected: it's unclear whether the city will insist that the work be removed from public view. The same work was previously pulled from an exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute; Bonami, curator of the next Whitney Biennial, is now reported as "thinking twice" about whether to include Abdessemed's work (which deals with the presence of violence and alienation in contemporary western society, and frequently features animals, as in his 2006 series of photographs of wild animals roaming the streets of Paris) at all in the Biennial. “I don’t want to terrify the institution," Bonami said, somewhat surprisingly. (Or perhaps he was issuing a challenge?)

I haven't seen the work (and probably wouldn't care to; I have a weak stomach and it's not the sort of thing I much fancy looking at), but I suspect that what, if anything, Abdessemed is guilty of -- in a public sense, at least -- is not being obvious enough in his moral standpoint to be publicly palatable. It's not entirely clear whether the artist is glorifying the suffering and death of animals, or is drawing attention to it in order to protest against it, or whether his works are in fact allegories of wider human situations. Or all of those things at once, or something else again. The audience isn't told. And of course, nor should it be. Although that's an entirely fair enough position for someone who's an artist and not a propagandist to take, in this private moral ambiguity lies a public problem. How should a work like this be understood in a public context?

Interestingly, one of the animal rights protestors in Turin suggested that if Abdessemed 's purpose was to "denounce the process of butchering animals", he should show their own "far more gruesome" slaughterhouse videos. This suggestion is founded on the notion that making images of real-life horror public encourages people to agitate against the conditions which brought it about. (I can vouch for this from my own experience: peering into the back of a butcher's van in my teens definitely encouraged me to become a vegetarian.) But one person's horror is always another person's entertainment.

While Bonami stresses that the animals would have been killed anyway, and that Abdessemed was just documenting what he saw, apparently that's not obvious from the videos themselves. His moral position is essentially ambiguous. It's a version of the eternal problem faced by war correspondents: should the photographer at some point put down the camera and try to intervene in the situation unfolding before them, or should they capture it and trust that the publication of the image of an atrocity will help to prevent more in future?

Perhaps it's a bit rich to compare the horrors of war with the slaughter of animals for food, which is, after all, only what Abdessemed is filming (as well as scorpions fighting spiders and whatnot while people bet on the outcome, which is apparently legal in Mexico). Not that I can imagine anyone bringing it here, but I wonder how the work would play in New Zealand? Probably OK, I would think: given our Calvinistic background, it's blasphemy or exotic sexuality which primarily pushes the New Zealand public's art censorship buttons. We're fine with dead animals. New Zealand's effectively been an enormous meatworks for the rest of the world since the late 19th century. (This in itself brought about a minor diplomatic contretemps when Peter Peryer's Dead Steer was exhibited in Germany in 1995, in an exhibition supported by the New Zealand embassy.)

As New Zealand band the Skeptics found back in 1987 when they shot their video 'A.F.F.C.O'. in a South Auckland freezing works, the meat-packing business is a violent and dangerous one, with six-foot chainsaws ripping beasts in half and 'men wading around up to their waists in blood'.

You need a strong stomach for that.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Playdate at Ringo's

In the mid-1980s, I lived in a flat down by the river in central Christchurch. When I walked into town to catch the bus to university, I'd pass by Ringo's secondhand bookshop on Manchester Street. If I wasn't too late coming home, I'd pop in for a quick browse.

Ringo's long gone now -- he packed up shop sometime in the fifteen years I was away, and no one I'm in touch with now seems to know what became of him -- but in his time he was a legend. Friends told me he'd been in the book trade since the 1960s, when, presumably, he also got his name: if the fourth Beatle were tiny, ferrety-faced, wore a greasy cheese-cutter cap, and spent his days listening to the races on a transistor radio with an evil-smelling roll-your-own permanently stuck to his lower lip, they were dead ringers. Back then I was a Camel smoker, but the odour of Ringo's cigarettes was too much even for me. With undertones of damp and old chip fat, the musty fug of twenty years of cheap tobacco hit you in a dense greyish-brown miasma as soon as you opened the door. ("The smell of death," said a friend.) It took a decade or more for the books I bought there to lose the odour.

If you discounted the stench -- no easy task -- I loved popping in to Ringo's. You never knew what you might come across. The books were displayed on trestle tables, wedged together with their spines upwards; new items were stored in cardboard boxes on the floor, waiting for their turn on the table. The odd treasure floated up from a motley soup comprised of a dozen dog-eared copies of Papillon and Jaws, Hillman Imp repair manuals, countless light pink 1970s Mills and Boon hospital romances, and several unwanted volumes of Pam Ayres's poetry. At the time, probably as an antidote to my university studies, I was collecting paperback bodice-rippers. Over a few years I gradually accumulated everything Georgette Heyer ever wrote, as well as the lurid and increasingly improbable adventures of 18th-century French aristocrat Angelique, by Sergeanne Golon (a gallic husband and wife team), in thirteen fat volumes including Angelique: The Road to Versailles, Angelique and the Sultan, Angelique in Revolt, etc etc. (I needn't go on. You get the idea.)

One afternoon, rummaging through one of the boxes under the table, I found a couple of old issues of Playdate. As usual on the cover of Ringo's books, there was a sticker with a dual price written in magic marker: 50c/25c, which meant if you brought it back after you'd read it he'd give you 25c for it as long as you bought something else, in a kind of homegrown book pawning scheme. Initially attracted by the design of its advertising, I paid $1 for the two copies and took them home, whereupon I became completely enraptured by the content: Playdate was an entertainment and popular culture magazine aimed at 'teens to twenty-sixers', published in New Zealand between 1960 and 1972. It featured items on fashion, popular music, movies, and occasionally art. There were also horoscopes, advice columns, interviews with pop culture celebrities and the most fantastic adverts for bri-nylon negligees, pancake makeup and stretch slacks. Pure Mad Men. Maybe a touch of Austin Powers. It was New Zealand, after all.

Over the next fortnight or so, each time I called into Ringo's I picked up another few copies. Initially I found the Playdates in the boxes (maybe a job lot?), then they were up on the table with the 'current' books. On about the fourth occasion I was in, I noticed that the price had increased. They were now $2/$1. Plonking a pile down on the counter I mentioned the increase to Ringo.

"Well, the thing is," he said apologetically, fag bobbing up and down, taking a whistly indrawn breath like a mechanic just about to tell you the bad news about your car, "They've become very popular. Just flying out the door. I've had to put the price up."

But it's just me buying them, I said. If I wasn't buying them no one would be.

I paid up, with bad grace. It wasn't until a while afterwards that I realised Ringo's argument held up either way.

The other day I got the big pile of Playdates out again. They've been with me over twenty years, through seven house removals and four cities; they're such a fantastic record of popular culture in New Zealand that I've never wanted to get rid of them, and in the end I'll probably give them to a library collection as they should be in the public domain (I note that even the National Library doesn't have the whole run). Flicking through them, it was the big guy who first noticed a photo taken by Marti Friedlander (though the caption said Marty). Looking through the magazines again more carefully, I realised that the New Zealand art world of the 1960s features in them frequently in various overt and covert ways. There are painters, photographers, film-makers, art collectors and assorted art groupies... some surprising names.

To this end, I thought that I might post a few pages here over the next few weeks. (Please excuse, as ever, the shoddy re-photography.)

Here for your viewing pleasure is Dick Frizzell's serigraphed Warhol-esque illustration for a short story by Peter John Wheatley entitled 'Blue Capsule', from June 1969.

And Marti Friedlander's terrific photos of The Satirists, a university review from August 1965:

More to come. They still whiff, a bit.